If you happen to turn on a TeeVee today… hell, if you look at a video screen (actually, you’re looking at a video screen NOW) … tip a nod toward Philo T. Farnsworth, who delivered electronic video to the planet 90 years ago today…
OK, maybe “news” is stretching it a bit, since this story has been in the works since October. But it does appear in the Washington Post, which legend has it is still a ‘news’paper…
The image atop this post is a composite of 8 portraits that were photographed at Richard Hull’s 2015 High Energy Amateur Science (HEAS) gathering at his home and lab in Richmond, VA back in October.
Most of that Saturday, we enjoyed the company of Washington Post correspondent Cathy Alter and photographer Andre Chung. I forget now how Cathy had gotten wind of the fusor crew, but she was intrigued enough to get some background on the subject and came prepared for an event that was – to put it mildly – somewhat foreign to her experience.
The result is this story that appears in the Sunday, May 29 Washington Post Magazine section:
…which offers an interesting perspective on how a lay-person responds when confronted with the fact of “amateur” scientists fooling around with nuclear reactors in their basements and garages.
Starting with a look at Richard Hull’s Fusor IV, Cathy writes:
I’m nervously checking out the 69-year-old Hull’s fusor, rubbernecking with 43 others, including a handful of high school students accompanied by game-but-baffled parents. We are gathered for the annual meeting of HEAS, which stands for the High Energy Amateur Science group and meets in this shed every year on the first Saturday of October for a day of, in Hull’s words, “anything that has to do with bangs, pops and sizzles.”
… I was captivated, bewildered and, frankly, a little afraid. As we filed out of Hull’s door at day’s end, a man in front of me turned around and said: “Just a tip. Be sure to wash your hands before you eat.”
And so it goes.
What follows are short profiles of Richard and eight of the other attendees at the HEAS gathering (pictured, above, clockwise from the top left: Richard Hull, Tim Raney, Kevin Dunn, Scott Moroch & Jack Rosky, Larry Adams, Connor Givans, Paul Schatzkin, Frank Sanns).
What is perhaps more interesting to read are the comments that follow the online version of the article, which offers a pretty good indication of what is the public’s perception of nuclear energy, fusion, and the fusor in particular.
It seems that as difficult as it may be to achieve net-power from fusion, it may be even harder to persuade a doubting populace that we really need it.
I dunno, maybe because most of the money seems to get siphoned off for the biggest, most cumbersome, complex, and costly (the 3-Cs of most fusion research) schemes and machines money can buy (and the bloated scientific staffs that build them) to solve what is essentially a simple challenge?
Fusion, at its core, is a simple concept. Take two hydrogen isotopes and smash them together with overwhelming force. The two atoms overcome their natural repulsion and fuse, yielding a reaction that produces an enormous amount of energy.
But a big payoff requires an equally large investment, and for decades we have wrestled with the problem of energizing and holding on to the hydrogen fuel as it reaches temperatures in excess of 150 million degrees Fahrenheit. To date, the most successful fusion experiments have succeeded in heating plasma to over 900 million degrees Fahrenheit, and held onto a plasma for three and a half minutes, although not at the same time, and with different reactors.
The most recent advancements have come from Germany, where the Wendelstein 7-X reactor recently came online with a successful test run reaching almost 180 million degrees, and China, where the EAST reactor sustained a fusion plasma for 102 seconds, although at lower temperatures.
Still, even with these steps forward, researchers have said for decades that we’re still 30 years away from a working fusion reactor. Even as scientists take steps toward their holy grail, it becomes ever more clear that we don’t even yet know what we don’t know.
Meanwhile, somebody with an original idea like Doug Coulter on a substantially smaller scale runs a one-man shop out in the woods, doing everything (more or less) by himself. We’ll probably see a better result than the billions being spent on the 3-Cs.
So, yeah, fusion will be 30 years in the future… until it isn’t.
If you’ve read anything about the promise of nuclear fusion, one of the words you encounter most frequently is “safe.” As in nuclear fusion will one day be a “clean, safe, and inexhaustible…” source of nuclear energy.
Yeah, well, maybe. Relatively speaking.
Compared to the nuclear reactors online today, yes, fusion is probably “safer” than fission.
For starters, you don’t have all the fuel present in the reactor the entire time – as you do with a fission reactor – so there is no danger of coolant breakdown, overheating and meltdown. (I’m tempted to draw this analogy: a fission reactor is a bit like putting your automobile engine inside the gas tank. What could possibly go wrong?)
To the contrary, all fusion experiments to date have involved vacuum chambers – the object is to have next-to-nothing in the chamber itself, and then admit only as much nuclear fuel as it takes to generate or sustain a reaction. (Following the automobile engine analogy a little further, a fusion reactor would be more like the cylinder, where only a tiny amount of explosive fuel vapor is admitted to the chamber to ignite the combustion that makes the whole thing go ’round). With a fusion reactor, the worst that could likely happen in the event of an accident is that the reaction chamber would rupture, the vacuum is lost, the reaction ceases, and a tiny bit of gas is released into the atmosphere. Not really much of a problem when measured against the “China Syndrome” scale of a potential fission reactor accident (see Fukushima, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island).
But let’s not kids ourselves that nuclear fusion is entirely “safe.”
First, we are still dealing with all the forces that bind atomic nuclei, and the radiation and particles that are released when atoms are split or combined.
Indeed, the whole way we measure fusion – by the quantity of neutrons produced – ventures into a realm that is potentially entirely lethal. In most of the experimental installations that are discussed here at Fusor.net, the level of neutron output is sufficiently low that there is no danger to being in the vicinity of the reactor for relatively short periods. But getting anywhere close to a self-sustaining reaction produces a neutron flux many orders of magnitude – i.e. in the trillions or even quadrillions – of neutrons per second. And as Doug Coulter’s recent experience demonstrates, “safe” is not one of the words that would describe that level of output.
In addition to the neutron flux, there are the X-rays and the gamma rays that have to be shielded.
And then of course there are the extremely high voltages – i.e. tens of thousands of volts – that operate a fusor. Be very careful what you touch…
So before plunging into one of these projects, it can be worth your time and effort to explore the forums for the myriad safety considerations that must be taken into account before building and operating your very own nuclear fusion reactor.
A simple search reveals that to date there are more than TWELVE HUNDRED posts that invoke the word “safety.” What is interesting is that, near as I can tell, there is no “FAQ” set that specifically addresses the safety considerations that should be taken in to account when building and operating one of these things.
Perhaps a few advanced searches can narrow the subject down:
There are 400+ posts that address “voltage” safety;
There are 170+ posts that address “neutrons” safety;
There are 150+ posts that address “X-rays” safety;
There are 280+ posts that address “vacuum” safety.
So, please, new users especially, avail yourselves to some of this material before embarking on a project with the blanket, unexamined assumption that nuclear fusion is perfectly “safe.” You’ll be glad you did…
Here’s a great example of what one motivated individual can do to inspire the next generation of Fusioneers.
Carl Greninger is an IT executive at Microsoft who became frustrated a few years ago with the limitations placed on science education in the public schools in his home town of Federal Way, WA.
It started with a guy named Carl Greninger, and his realization that tight budgets and fear of lawsuits have pushed out much of the fun, dangerous stuff from high school science labs, leaving “nothing sharper than silly putty.
“I walked into a classroom and I saw a science teacher. And he had a string and a paper cup. And he says, well, we’re studying physics, and I looked back at the kids and I saw the word ‘lame’ tattooed across their foreheads. And I said, I can do better than this in my garage,” he says.
And so despite the fact that he had no “nuclear physics” or engineering in his background, Carl went about the not entirely difficult project of building a fusor in his basement and garage.
Now comes this recent, detailed account of the inspiring work that Carl is doing, sharing his laboratory with students from all over his part of the country and getting them excited about the possibilities of fusion research and advanced science and physics in general:
As I have reflected on this experience, I think the fusion reactor was pretty awesome, but it was the students and what they were doing that was truly amazing.
Carl …had a vision of a private science club to teach students “real science.” He turned his vision into a Friday night program that attracts the brightest minds in the region. Adult volunteers, who are experts in biology, electrical engineering and software engineering also attend the Friday night meetings.
So yeah, fusion is definitely cool, but not nearly as cool as the knowledge and skill sets reaching for fusion can instill in its pursuers.
What Carl’s efforts demonstrate is that as our technology advances, there is a concurrent need for new and innovative educational concepts and processes. It’s gratifying to think that offering the body of knowledge that has been compiled here at Fusor.net has had some small hand in instigating such an effort.
It turns out that over the years, the Fusor.net forums have accumulated quite a bit of material that revisits the events that transpired at the ITT/Farnsworth laboratory in Fort Wayne, Indiana during the years when the Fusor was first introduced and developed (ca. 1959-1967).
That lab was located on Pontiac Street in Fort Wayne, so a search of the forums using just the word “Pontiac” delivers 40 results. Almost (?) all of these posts start with something Richard Hull shares from the investigations and interviews he conducted with the Farnsworth fusion team back in the early ‘aughts. I accompanied Richard on one of those expeditions in 2001 – the most pertinent results of those interviews (from my perspective, anyway) were included in my Farnsworth bio, The Boy Who Invented Television.
The full search results can be found here, and here are a few of the more choice threads:
- found this interesting info in the P.T Farnsworth patent section – interesting observations about the role of tritium in the Farnsworth’s labs biggest numbers, subsequent experiments at UofW of UofI, and the difficulty of using Tritium nowadays;
- Yet more Horrors in the fusion story – offers some accounts of the very first fusor construction and some discussion of the role of electron multipacting in the evolution of the fusor;
- ITT fusor team tid-bits…The team was marginally a team – details the bifurcation of the lab in the latter stages, between “the pit” crew and “the cave” crew.
- What we’re missing – wherein Richard debunks the “apocryphal” reports of “runaway, self-sustained” nuclear fusion in the Farnsworth labs.
- Gene Meeks – In Memorium – I call the device we build is the “Hirsch/Meeks Variation” of the Farnsworth fusor; Robert L. Hirsch is still very much among the living, but namesake Gene Meeks passed away in 2006. Richard posted a
That’s just a sample of what can be found by running a search for ‘Pontiac’ in the forums. If you’re relatively new here, it’s worth taking some time to drill through the links and hear some stories… it will give you a much better sense of the trail we are trying to follow, the footsteps we are trying to fill, and the legend that we’re trying to make sense of.
No surprise here:
The multibillion-dollar ITER fusion project will take another 6 years to build beyond the—now widely discredited—official schedule, a meeting of the governing council was told this week. ITER management has also asked the seven international partners backing the project for additional funding to finish the job.
When we discussed the future of Fusor.net at the HEAS gathering at Richard Hull’s home back in October, one of the recurring themes was: there is a wealth of information buried beneath the detritus of daily exchanges that one typically finds in the forums.
This site has been in existence more or less for nearly 20 years. The first iteration – the “songs.com” bbs – was so long ago – before the dreaded Y2K – that the posts don’t show the year. But I’m pretty sure it was 1998.
Since then, knowledgeable people of all stripes have come and gone – or come and stayed – and deposited here a veritable treasure trove of information about the design, construction, and operation of the Farnsworth Fusor (or, more precisely, “Hirsch/Meeks Variation” of the Farnsworth Fusor).
So it is no wonder that much of the valuable information stored here can be found in posts that date back a decade or more. The challenge now is to effectively mine those resources so the most valuable nuggets can be brought to the surface for the benefit of newcomers and veterans alike.
After exchanging some recent messages with Site Admin (and fusion veteran) Frank Sanns, I think we’ve come up with one way to periodically drill down and see what lies beneath.
Starting now, and hopefully once or twice a week for the foreseeable future, we’re going to post a series of “The Best of Fusor.Net.”
The key to the idea is the search engine that lives at the top of every page of the forums. You can find out just about anything that’s ever been posted that way. For example, search for “Gene Meeks” (co-inventor of the fusor we build here) and you’ll find 60 entries over 10 pages that go back as far as 2001 – 14 years!
So clearly, there’s a ton of valuable stuff lying beneath the surface of this site. Let’s see what we can do to bring some of it closer to the surface.
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For the first entry in the “Best of…” sweepstakes, we visit the subject of “runaway fusors.”
Last week, Frank and I got in to an e-mail exchange about the “runaway fusion” events that have been reported to have occurred in the Farnsworth fusion laboratories in Fort Wayne, Indiana in the mid 1960s. I think he was referring to an event that I described on page 232 of my Farnsworth bio, “The Boy Who Invented Television”
…. engineer Fred Haak described an occasion when he, George Bain, and an- other engineer named Jack Fisher were preparing the Fusor for a metered run that would be conducted the next day. There was no instrumentation on the Fusor during the setup. As was often the practice, the workers were putting the Fusor through its paces to make sure its systems were all functioning when, according to Fred Haak, the Fusor in the pit “just lit up and went crazy.” George Bain killed the power immediately but the Fusor did not shut down—it actually continued operating, as an increasingly bright light emanated from the pit. After this spontaneous operation had continued for at least 30 seconds—perhaps a minute—a “pop and a hiss” indicated that the stainless steel reactor vessel had been breached, releasing its vacuum, at which point the reaction finally ceased and the Fusor cooled down.
It’s Frank’s contention that such an event could not have happened, and to make his case he sent me a link to a thread entitled “Can A Fusor Explode?”
The thread was prompted by a question that Steve Sesselman – another Fusor.net veteran (who, incidentally, pretty much holds down the Aussie contingent of the community) posted back in 2005 – more than ten years ago. What follows is an interesting discussion of some of the inner workings of the fusor, and possibly the belying of some of the legends that surround the Farnsworth labs in the 60s.
See for yourself, it’s just a couple of pages of posts, and it’s just a sample of some of the material that would go unseen if we don’t make an effort to pull it out.
So “watch this space” (actually, this category) for more such posts in the weeks ahead.
Well, no, not voluntarily….
If you are one of those people whose involuntary reflexes include frequent glances at the infinite trivia generator known as “Facebook,” then consider taking a look at the Fusor Builders group there.
The group is not officially affiliated with this or any other site (so far as I know) but a lot of the membership is similar.
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Last week I drove back up to Virginia (I was in Richmond for HEAS earlier in the month) to spend a day with Doug Coulter.
I’ve known of Doug for several years, and have occasionally looked in on his website, where he has made a concerted effort to focus and elevate the “open source” discussion of fusion above the noise that has become an issue for the Fusor.net fora of late.
Doug showed up on my radar again just before HEAS, after I posted this appeal to the Fusor community to, well, get serious about this line of inquiry. Shortly after that post, I got a message from one of the regular visitors to the site to “have a talk with Bill Fain (another Fusor/HEAS regular) when you get there about Doug…”
At HEAS, I did talk to Bill, who, it turns out, has been working closely with Doug for quite some time on his fusor project, which Doug has been building for several years on his solar-powered, off-the-grid “homestead in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains near Floyd, Virginia. And what Bill told me got me as fired up about this topic as anything I’ve heard since it first got my attention more than forty years ago.
After talking to Bill I visited Doug’s website, where he has been entirely forthcoming about some recent experiments (if somewhat and understandably circumspect about the techniques involved):
….we made a ginormous breakthrough, actually. We are at approximately 100 billion neutrons/second with under 100w input.
100 billion neutrons/second?? Whoa! Jump back (literally and figuratively)!